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Militants launch social support in an Iraqi city

Monday - 3/24/2014, 12:18am  ET

FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 10, 2014 file photo, a masked anti-government gunman clears debris after clashes in Fallujah, Iraq. Islamic militants who took over the Iraqi city of Fallujah are now trying to show they can run it, providing social services, policing the streets and implementing Shariah rulings in a bid to win the support of its Sunni Muslim population. (AP Photo, File)

Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraq's al-Qaida-inspired militants who took over the city of Fallujah are now trying to show they can run it, providing social services, policing the streets and implementing Shariah rulings in a bid to win the support of its Sunni Muslim population.

Gunmen in ski masks and Afghan-style tunics patrol the streets, but also perform a sort of community outreach. On a recent day, they were seen repairing damaged electricity poles and operating bulldozers to remove concrete blast walls and clear garbage. Others planted flowers in a highway median, and some fighters approached residents in the street and apologized for gaps in services, promising to address them.

The Islamic militants have also made themselves the law in the city and aim to show they are acting to prevent crime. On Thursday, militants cut off the right hand of a man accused of robbing a mobile phone shop and paraded him through Fallujah in the back of a pickup truck, forcing him to raise his stump to show people, according to witnesses in the city.

The push by the al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, marks an effort to bolster their standing in a community that remains under siege and exhausted by three months of clashes between the insurgents and government forces.

The group is trying to increase its appeal among the broader Sunni minority in Iraq, where resentment against the Shiite-led government runs deep -- and it is trying to correct past mistakes. In the 2007, many major Sunni tribes turned against al-Qaida militants and formed U.S.-backed militias to battle the group, angered by its rampant killings during the height of the country's sectarian bloodbath following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Many in the Sunni community still bitterly hate the militants, and some tribes have joined government forces in fighting the group in Fallujah.

Gauging whether the outreach is improving the group's image among Fallujah residents is difficult. Several residents who spoke to The Associated Press said they fear the militants and want police control to return. Some said they are happy with the group's activities, but all spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety.

"The ISIL people are providing security to Fallujah residents after policemen left," said Abu Abdullah, a shop owner who offered only his nickname. He said shoppers can reach his store more easily after fighters removed blast walls blocking the street.

ISIL took control of Fallujah, one of the main cities in Iraq's western, Sunni-dominated Anbar province, in late December. The turmoil began when security forces arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought on terrorism charges, then dismantled a year-old Sunni anti-government protest camp. Clashes erupted with security forces.

To ease tension, the government ordered the army to hand over security duties in Anbar to local police. But militants took the opportunity to drive out the police and overrun Fallujah, just 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, and parts of the nearby provincial capital, Ramadi.

Nearly three months later, government forces have been unable to retake Fallujah. Government offices have been shut and a number of police stations have been demolished. Only schools and the directorates of health, electricity and the municipality remain operational, according to residents.

Control rests with two groups: ISIL and the Military Council For Tribal Revolutionaries. The tribal council is a mixture of tribal representatives and militants drawn mainly from the Saddam-era army. They don't pledge allegiance to ISIL, but avoid confronting them. ISIL was al-Qaida's main affiliate in Iraq but was recently disavowed by the global terrorist group after it expanded to fight in the civil war in neighboring Syria.

ISIL fighters in Fallujah protect key buildings such as banks and real estate offices. Recently, a senior ISIL leader joined local officials and tribal leaders in reopening a primary school. He expressed a readiness to help with fix up the school, provide it with desks and chalkboards, and offer protection.

With the collapse of the judicial system, they established a religious court to solve disputes among residents.

The hand amputation underlined the group's intention to show a tough-on-crime approach. But apparently to avoid alienating residents, ISIL has so far avoided enforcing some of the other most extreme aspects of its hard-line interpretation of Islamic law, overlooking some practices it considers "haram," or forbidden, several residents said. Barbers who trim beards are not being closed down, and women -- who usually wear headscarves in the conservative city -- are not forced to take on the even more conservative face-veil, for example.

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